French Author Accused of Anti-Semitism Is Snubbed for a Top Literary Prize

PARIS — It is one of the most widely-discussed books in France these past weeks: a vivid autobiographical account of childhood mistreatment and literary salvation by Yann Moix, an author who until recently was also known as a resident provocateur on one of the country’s most popular late-night talk shows.

Mr. Moix’s book, called “Orléans” — the town where he grew up and where, in his telling, he was physically and psychologically abused by his parents — was praised by critics when it was published in August. Some saw it as worthy of the shortlist for the Goncourt Prize, France’s top literary award.

Relatives of Mr. Moix accused him of fabricating or exaggerating details of the abuse, but that only gave “Orléans” the scandalous whiff of dirty laundry being aired in public. Critics debated whether the factual accuracy of the book had any bearing on its literary qualities, but many agreed that the writing was some of Mr. Moix’s best in years.

Then things took a much uglier turn.

Last week, the French news media uncovered vicious anti-Semitic drawings and texts that Mr. Moix had made in his youth. He denied having done them, then admitted responsibility, leading to a firestorm of criticism that forced him to apologize and stop promoting his book.

On Tuesday, the Goncourt jury revealed the 15 authors shortlisted for the prize, which will be awarded in November after several rounds of voting. Mr. Moix was not selected.

Bernard Pivot, the head of the jury, said this week that some of his peers found that the second half of the book was not as strong as the first, and added, referring to the accusations by Mr. Moix’s relatives, that the Goncourt jury did not like the incursion of family drama into literature.

“The third reason that was mentioned by one of us is that if we put him on the Goncourt list, inevitably all the social networks are going to accuse us of promoting anti-Semitism,” Mr. Pivot told RTL radio. “I think that Yann Moix has a lot of talent, he has immense erudition, but unfortunately he has an unrestrained taste for contestation, for provocation.”

The drawings and texts at the center of the controversy, which include crude caricatures and denials of the Holocaust, were made by Mr. Moix for an obscure student publication when he was in his 20s, and were first uncovered last week by the newsmagazine L’Express.

Mr. Moix initially admitted responsibility for the drawings but not the texts, but later told the newspaper Libération, “I take responsibility for and shoulder everything.”

“These texts and drawings are anti-Semitic, but I am not an anti-Semite,” he said, calling them a youthful mistake that he was now ashamed of, and saying that his “whole journey as a man” since then had been an effort to “pull” himself “out of this trap.”

Mr. Moix is no stranger to controversies. From 2015 to 2018, he was a biting pundit on a popular late-night talk-show. And early this year he came under fire for telling a women’s lifestyle magazine that he was “incapable” of loving women over 50 because they were “too old.” (Mr. Moix is 51.)

“Orléans” quickly attracted controversy of its own.

Days before publication, José Moix, Mr. Moix’s father, told a local newspaper that the novel was “pure fantasy” and that, while he had been a strict father who occasionally disciplined his children, he had never physically abused Mr. Moix. In the book, the author describes being whipped with electrical cords, abandoned in a forest in the middle of the night, and smeared with his own feces.

Days after the publication, Alexandre Moix, Mr. Moix’s brother, wrote in an open letter for the newspaper Le Parisien that it was actually Mr. Moix who had been abusive, and that the future writer had, for instance, tried to throw his brother out of a window and drown him in a toilet bowl. Mr. Moix, his brother wrote, was a cruel and violent narcissist.

“In his life, my brother has only two obsessions: winning the Goncourt Prize and annihilating me,” Mr. Moix’s brother wrote, adding that Mr. Moix was “sacrificing reality on the altar of his literary ambitions.” (In a television appearance, Mr. Moix said that “Orléans” was a “novel, not an account.”)

In 1996, Mr. Moix won the Goncourt prize for a first novel, which is separate from the Goncourt itself, and in 2013 he won the Renaudot, another French literary prize, for his novel “Naissance,” which also explored childhood trauma.

Follow Aurelien Breeden on Twitter: @aurelienbrd.

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